chapter  11
19 Pages

Surrogates for the underrepresented? Ideology and participatory inequality in personal and professional political action: Tom W.G. van der Meer


Introduction Citizens’ participation in political life is a central concern in representative democracy. Governmental policy depends on citizen participation aimed at influencing policy outcomes (Verba et al. 1978). However, we know that some social groups are more likely to engage in political activities than others and that this participatory inequality means these groups are likely to exert a greater influence on outcomes. Participatory inequality is especially acute along ideological or policy conflict lines: i.e. ideological or political groups are more likely to participate than others and are more likely to be heard by policy makers.1 Ultimately, this leads to ideologically or politically biased policy. There is evidence that some direct personal forms of political participation are unequal and there is an ideological dimension (van der Meer et al. 2009a). Leftwing citizens participate more than rightwing citizens (although rightwing citizens are more likely to vote during elections). Citizens with an extreme ideological position are more likely to participate than ideological moderates. And citizens who perceive a large ideological gap between their position and the government react by getting engaged directly in political activities. The literature on participatory inequality focuses mainly on conventional forms of direct, personal political action like voting, contacting officials, campaigning, and signing a petition: “activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of governmental personnel and/or the actions they take” (Verba and Nie 1972: 2). This approach ignores the supposed shift in the repertoire of political action toward more indirect, professionalized and collective forms (see the introductory chapter to this volume). Both individual citizens and their organizations increasingly tend to contract out the actual act of political participation to professionals (Jordan and Maloney 2007: 158-63; Saurugger 2007: 397-8). Fisher (2006: 67-86) labeled this as “outsourcing activism”. When supporters or donators spend money in this way, they influence politics without undertaking direct political action by effectively hiring professionals to lobby, campaign, and petition on their behalf. Scholars refer to the role of individual citizens in this professionalized system of political

involvement as “mere card-carrying members” (Putnam 2000: 59) and “checkbook participants” (Skocpol 2003: 292). Indeed, by far the most prevalent mode of involvement in interest and activist associations is passive membership (van der Meer et al. 2009b). The rise of professionalized interest and activist associations has been lamented for creating “ephemeral, thin, sporadic” and “ill-informed” forms of political involvement (Hay et al. 2008: 11). However, the picture may not be so bleak. Maloney (2009: 284) suggested that professional organizations can “act as surrogates for those who cannot effectively represent themselves – i.e., acting on behalf of a public that lack the necessary knowledge and expertise”. Whereas Maloney explicitly focused on organizations as surrogates for those who lack resources, his line of reasoning may be extended. Along similar lines, I theorize in this chapter that professional organizations may act as surrogates not only for those who can’t adequately engage in direct political action, but also for those who do not want to spend time or effort to do so. If so, indirect political action (through professionalized organizations) could counterbalance the overrepresentation of leftwing and extremist citizens that we find in more direct forms of political action. The question then arises whether there is a similar, smaller or even opposite bias in the ideological and political composition of professionalized forms of political participation. To what extent are direct (personal) and indirect (professionalized) participation unequal across ideological and policy dimensions? Moreover, the distinction between direct and indirect participation may shed light on the mechanisms that explain the participatory inequalities between ideological groups. On the one hand, one might expect leftwing and extremist bias in participation to be related to specific left-leaning policy preferences. In that case, the ideologically leftwing and extremist bias in political participation should be reflected in specific policy issues. On the other hand, leftwing and extremist citizens may be more likely to participate due to their preference for the process of active participation itself. Empirically, very little is known about these two mechanisms. Theoretically, however, the second mechanism – process incentives – cannot explain participation (and participatory inequality) in professionalized organizations, as chequebook members evidently do not seek active participation. Thus, two additional research questions emerge: to what extent can the relationship between ideological position with direct (personal) and indirect (professionalized) participation explained by citizens’ policy preferences? To what extent do the mechanisms behind participatory inequality differ with regard to direct and indirect participation? Given these considerations, this chapter aims to further the debate in two ways. First, it develops a single theoretical and empirical framework that covers both (modes of ) indirect and direct political participation. Second, it tests whether participatory inequality along ideological lines is explained by citizens’ policy positions. Through these aims, we assess the extent to which professional organizations function as surrogates for the inactive and as a counterbalance to the overrepresentation of leftwing and extreme citizens in direct personal forms of political action.